We have been sharing stories of those who have survived or are battling cancer. Below is the story of Crystal Rittersdorf, written in her own words, which tells of being a previvor. She fought cancer before it had a chance to show up. Photos used in this article are courtesy of Crystal. We thank her for sharing her story and hope it touches and encourages others.
Hello, my name is Crystal Rittersdorf and I am a Previvor. I am 36 years old. I grew up in Stanton, Michigan and moved to Lowell in 2002 with my now husband, Ben. He was born and raised in Lowell. Together we have a 13 year old son, Logan, and 4 year old daughter, Destiny. There isn’t a better place to raise our children. Lowell is definitely the best place to be!
Little did I know, my journey actually started in 2012 when my aunt was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer at the young age of 47. She also tested positive for a genetic mutation in BRCA1 gene. In April of 2015, I had genetic testing done at Spectrum Health Cancer Genetics Clinic in Grand Rapids through Myraid Genetic Laboratories. At 33 years old I also tested positive for the familial mutation in the BRCA1 gene and I was diagnosed with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Syndrome.
Being BRCA1+ means that I have an increased risk of developing breast, ovarian, colon, pancreatic and melanoma cancers. That risk also increased with my strong family history of cancers. My lifetime risk was determined to be 87% chance of breast cancer and 54% chance of ovarian cancer. Normal population risk (without familial or BRCA mutation) is about 11% breast cancer risk and 1% for ovarian. The odds were literally against me and my body was a ticking time bomb.
I had to make the hardest decision in my life; to just monitor my health or to take action and prevent cancer before it had a chance. I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for cancer! In May of 2016 I had a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy at a young age of 34. It was a long process that included many complications and required 4 other surgeries. I was finally done with reconstruction in November of 2017. However, it wasn’t the end to my surgeries. On December 7, 2017 I underwent a prophylactic total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy. The surgeries may be over for now but my breast implants will need to be replaced every ten years. I also still have to get annual MRI’s along with various other cancer checks. My lifetime risk for breast cancer is now 1% and <1% for ovarian, well below the normal risk.
I believe I was given this life to educate others on the importance of genetic testing, early detection, BRCA1 and being a voice for Previvors. I would like to add some of the misunderstandings about all of this. The first being that this is only a woman’s disease. That’s absolutely wrong, males can be BRCA carriers and they also have the same breast, colon, pancreatic and melanoma cancer risks as women along with an increased risk of prostate cancer. Cancer doesn’t discriminate! Secondly, BRCA isn’t the only genetic mutation that can cause cancer. There are a lot, around 40 that are currently known about and others yet to be discovered. Full panel genetic testing is highly suggested to eliminate your risk. If you have a strong family history of cancer, I urge you to seek the advice from a genetic counselor; it could possibly save your life! Thirdly, as someone who has went through the trauma of having a mastectomy, there are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding it. One in particular would be people often compare a mastectomy with an augmentation; they are absolutely not the same thing at all. We know you mean well but please don’t refer to it as being an augmentation (aka boob job); we did this to save our lives not for vanity. Previvors tend to get very little recognition; we just want to be acknowledged and our stories to be told. I asked my fellow pink sisters (Survivors, Previvors and Fighters) what one thing they want others faced with cancer to know and that is: If you’re a survivor, fighter, previvor or a loved one of someone who is, please be proactive about your health. Push for scans/tests and seek second opinions-this is your LIFE! And NEVER GIVE UP!
The past three years may have been the hardest years of my life, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world! I plan on being here to watch my children grow up and have families of their own; all the while growing old with my husband. I SAVED MY LIFE!!! I couldn’t have gone through all of this without the outpouring of support from my family, friends and fellow pink sisters. I can not thank them enough. I am truly blessed!